Making a Difference | November 2015


Project Health is a program officially offered to companies in Waterloo Region – but in reality, the companies are not truly the target group. Gretchen Sangster is a Public Health Nurse who is Project Health Lead. She says, “We wanted to reach a number of people in our community. Going through the workplace was the logical way to reach people in all walks of life.”

So, in October 2007, the Region of Waterloo Public Health division created Project Health, an initiative that provides health promotion services to workplaces interested in improving and sustaining a healthy workplace. Project Health provides consultation and support, networking sessions, web-based resources, lunch-and-learn sessions, referrals… and an annual awards program.

Kuntz Electroplating Inc. was one of nine Regional companies to receive the first-ever Platinum level Workplace Award. Tania Foreman, Director of Employee Services at KEI, called their relationship with Project Health “a win-win-win situation.”

She told Exchange, “At KEI, the Health and Safety of our employees is our number one priority.  While Project Health and the Healthy Workplace Awards initially provided validation for our ‘wellness’ efforts, it has also provided direction, ideas and resources for areas where our program could be improved. Providing our employees with the tools they need to stay healthy is essential to ensuring the ongoing sustainability of our workforce; employees benefit, KEI benefits and in turn our customers benefit.”

Jessie Johal (right) is manager of the Region’s Healthy Communities, Schools and Workplaces Program. She says that a key focus for Project Health is to “work with organizations” to create “day to day policies” that foster a “wellness culture.”

Sangster (left) says that Project Health promotes four strategies.

The first step is “awareness raising,” creating a workplace environment “where people want to make a change or an improvement.”

Second step – “skill building.” This involves programs, typically “challenges,” that encourage behaviours that make for healthy living – contests that reward using the stairs, tracking activity with pedometers, or tracking healthy eating. Sangster points out that “if you try a new behaviour for four to six weeks, there’s more chance of sustaining it.”

The third strategy involves “environmental support”.

Sangster asks, “How can the employer put things in place for people who have adopted new behaviour?”

And finally, Project Health encourages a strategy of “policy development”, where the employer creates and implements a consistent set of policies that encourage, support and sustain the elements of a healthy workplace.

These are the four areas in which applicants to the Waterloo Region Healthy Workplace Awards program are judged. These awards were first presented in 2010; by 2014, regional organizers recognized that companies were exceeding their original award-winning levels, so a new, superior category was created.

Until 2014, the top award was Gold; starting last year, companies can earn a Platinum Award. This year, 20 awards were presented on October 29, significantly more than in 2014.

Platinum Awards went to Boehmer Box LP, Canada Revenue Agency; Christie Digital Systems Canada; Corporate Benefit Analysts Inc.; Economical Insurance; Equitable Life of Canada; KEI – Kuntz Electroplating; Kitchener-Wilmot Hydro; Trinity Village; and Waterloo North Hydro. Gold Award recipients included Anchor Danly, Blackberry, Cambridge and North Dumfries Hydro; Desire 2 Learn; Erb Group of Companies; Farm Mutual Reinsurance Plan and Ontario Mutuals Insurance Association; Grand River Hospital; Parents for Community Living; and Teledyne DALSA, while a Bronze Award went to United Way Kitchener Waterloo & Area, and Economical Insurance took the Innovator Award.

For companies interested in the 2016 awards, information is available on line at

Johal and Sangster encourage companies to think outside the box – and sometimes, outside their buildings – as they develop policies and programs to encourage health and wellness. When they start brainstorming during the interview, the ideas come thick and fast: “bring in speakers”; “provide written materials about health”; “mark areas in our around the building that are one, two or three kilometers, for walkers”; “put up posters”; “improve the lighting on stairways to make them more appealing”; “stairways in the middle of the buildings where they are available”; “flexible workstations that allow work standing up”; “walking meetings, to get people away from their desks”; “fifteen minute stretch breaks”; “move more, sit less.”

The Project Health leaders agree that “engagement with the program is growing,” but they have to use their own resources very creatively to make it work. That’s because when you add all the staff together who contribute to the regional program, although there are 10 names on the list, including eight topic specialists, their actual time spent totals two – two full time equivalents. That’s to administer and staff a program that currently impacts on 200 companies in the region. They target companies with 50 or more people, so the large number of employees involved is clear from the math. As well, smaller companies can access support materials on the Project Health website.

To accomplish all this, says Johal, Project Health tries to work with a key person from each organization, typically someone in human resources. “We need this approach,” she explains, “to be sustainable.”

Another issue impacting on sustainability is funding – and Johal admits that the Project Health budget approved by Regional Council “keeps reducing.” So they are constantly looking for “partnerships,” and for champions in the companies involved, employees who will continue to make their health and wellness programs successful and sustainable.
Those are the people who attend the seminars and lunch and learn sessions at Project Health – events that are always very well attended.

Gretchen Sangster sums the program up: “It’s all about behavioural change.”